Hun Alum Russo Has Found Home with PU Baseball, Getting Promoted to Top Assistant Coach for Program
FEELING AT HOME: Princeton University baseball assistant coach Mike Russo, right, surveys the action alongside head coach Scott Bradley in a 2019 game. Russo, a former Hun School standout pitcher, was recently promoted to top assistant and recruiting coordinator for the Tiger baseball program. (Photo by Beverly Schaefer, provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
By Justin Feil
Mike Russo has never had to move far in his baseball coaching career, but he’s happy to be moving up.
The Hun School graduate was promoted this month by Princeton University head coach Scott Bradley from the second assistant to the top assistant and recruiting coordinator for the Tiger baseball team that he started out with as volunteer coach six years ago.
“I had no plan exactly where the coaching thing was going to go,” said Russo.
“I did know I loved it and I wanted to move up and wanted more responsibility each and every year. That’s where I started. Once I got recruiting and got my hands on my first recruit, I just thought it’d be really awesome to take over that role and hopefully at some point I aspire to be a head coach. I’m in no rush to do that right now. I want to stay the course and keep getting more and more experience.”
Russo enjoyed a positive college career, pitching at North Carolina State for two years and then starring at Kean University. In his junior season at Kean, lanky right-hander Russo posted a 10-2 record with a 1.93 ERA, getting named as the 2011 NJAC Pitcher of the Year and garnering second-team ABCA/Rawlings and Division III All-America honors. Going 7-1 during his final collegiate season, he helped pitch the Cougars to a second consecutive D-III College World Series.
After graduating from Kean, Russo returned to Hun to get his start in coaching as a volunteer for longtime Raider head coach Bill McQuade. He hasn’t gotten out of coaching since then. He spent three years helping at Hun, helped Kean and then served as pitching coach for Forest City in the Coastal Plain League in 2014 before joining Princeton.
“I never even thought that would be an option,” said Russo. “I was training to play independent ball and trying to sign with an affiliate organization. I was training at Hun and coaching basketball and baseball. I first caught the coaching bug with McQuade. From there, I reached out to a bunch of schools up and down the East Coast, probably 20 different schools looking for a volunteer spot just to get back into college baseball. Princeton was probably the last school that I legitimately reached out to.”
Russo worried that he needed a Princeton education to be a coach there, but head coach Bradley took him under his wing and has helped mentor Russo’s growth. Russo was promoted to replace Lloyd Brewer, who recently retired after more than 20 years with the program. Russo’s day-to-day pitching coach duties won’t change much, but there will be more recruiting responsibilities.
“I was kind of transitioning into that a little bit, but now I have more of a role to make decisions and decide where we go and where we do well with recruits and what events we should attend,” said Russo.
“There’s that aspect of where there’s more of a strategy side of where we’ll be going to find the best players for us moving forward and how we do our official visits. Hopefully this thing opens up where we can start getting ahead in the recruiting classes.”
Russo envisions starting a Junior Day that would allow the Tigers to begin earlier to whittle down the list of potential high school juniors who could be Princeton recruits. He would also like to see Princeton recruiting the highest caliber tournaments. Russo is looking forward to putting his own twist into recruiting while continuing to work with the Tiger pitchers.
“We’re starting to realize in a tough way we need more pitch-ability,” said Russo.
“We’re trying to find that healthy mix. We have a guy who’s a freshman this year who’s a submarine pitcher. We don’t want to find that staff that literally has every arm that throws 86-89 with a breaking ball, righthander straight over the top, with two lefties. We’re trying to get unique, have some guys that have a little funk to their delivery, have a little power, have guys with finesse, and have guys that have the potential to be power guys with a little more pitch-ability and the ability to get guys out. And with our program and what we’re doing in terms of pre- and post-throwing and strength and conditioning, we’re hoping to help guys gain velocity and move on hopefully to the next level.”
Princeton saw James Proctor sign a free agent deal with Cincinnati Reds after last year’s shortened season. In 2019, Ryan Smith was selected by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim while Ben Gross, an All-Ivy pitcher who previously starred at Princeton High, was picked by the Houston Astros in 2018. In 2016, Russo helped the Tigers reach the NCAA tournament and Chad Powers get picked as Ivy League Pitcher of the Year.
Russo likes the three senior pitchers that the Tigers have this year – Keith Gabrielson, Jack Anderson and Connor Udell – all Russo clones as 6’5 right handers. The Tigers are working to diversify their pitching staff and prepare for the spring season.
“It’s challenging and you have to figure out what you have in a short amount of time in the fall,” said Russo. “Then I script what winter and early spring will look like after that. The real challenge is the amount of time we have.”
This past fall, the Tiger coaches did not have the opportunity to evaluate their players as they typically use bullpen sessions and scrimmages in those months to assess their roster. Russo used that time to figure out into which roles to slot the Princeton pitchers as well as how to best develop them. University students were not on campus while they took classes remotely, and Princeton coaches won’t be able to see their players until they are out of quarantine after returning to campus in late January. Teams must begin practices in small pods before advancing through phases and finally returning to play.
“Regardless of what happens, we’ll be able to train and see our guys,” said Russo.
“It’s been literally a year since I’ve seen them. To not be around guys for a year, guys that you recruited from all over the country and have trained over the last three or four years, especially the seniors, you feel for them. They’re guys you’ve been around for a while and worked with them so long and you’re invested in them and you want what’s best for them.”
For Russo, his own playing experience has greatly influenced his coaching approach, getting inspired by McQuade at Hun and Neil Ioviero at Kean.
“I try to ingrain my mentality in specific situations to our guys, but I want them to put their own flavor on it,” said Russo. “They don’t have to be exactly how I was mentally and physically. The biggest thing I try to pass along is how I would attack hitters.”
Some on the Tigers staff try to overthink pitching or find one formula to use. Russo sees that tripping up some pitchers. He focuses on the routine and developing strong work attitudes that help promote development.
“I try to explain to them that baseball is a feel game,” said Russo.
“Baseball is really, really hard, but when I was most consistent throwing strikes or swinging a bat or whatever it may be, it was always because I had a great feel for something. That feel came from the correct practice routine and repetition. You build confidence from that.”
Russo’s progress as a coach has been impacted by Bradley’s mentorship with the former Major League catcher guiding him through his early coaching career and helping him gain critical experience.
“Overall, from being around Scott, an experienced nine-year veteran big leaguer, being younger and coming out of college baseball and just finishing up I was more of a hothead,” said Russo.
“I wouldn’t classify myself as a hothead, but I definitely had more of that fire and all that stuff wanting to get on guys, which I still do, but I think letting our guys make their mistakes and being able to prepare them before they make those mistakes is huge. The biggest thing is certain decisions that I make are instead of reactionary ones, they’re more of trying to guide someone towards the overall success of development and
obviously building relationships with them and making them understand you’re there to help them succeed.”
Looking ahead to this spring, Russo is preparing to utilize that mentoring style, no matter what happens to the Princeton season. He’s hopeful that the Tigers can play after only getting in seven games last year before the pandemic ended the year and added a layer of challenge to Princeton’s coaching responsibilities.
“This whole summer we adapted,” said Russo. “There’s going to be things that change all the time, but this is obviously a huge shock to everybody. We were able to adapt to online recruiting and ending last season and getting our guys to stay motivated to come back on campus. We went through a whole fall and winter virtual, and now our guys are on campus. We still don’t know what is going to happen with our season. The only thing we can do is adapt to whatever situation comes to us and keep pushing through and keep our heads up and don’t look back.”